Crank up the power

G Magazine
G Magazine

YOU might have seen the odd electric bike or two roaming around the streets (especially uphill), but you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s a new trend about to explode – at least for the time being. Despite technology pushing ahead, e-bikes have taken a long time to gain momentum.

Patented as early as 1897, power-assisted pushies are only now taking off, with more than 120 million electric scooters, bicycles and tricycles zipping along the congested bike lanes of crowded cities, mostly in Asia. Not even the financial downturn halted manufacturing – last year electric bicycle production in China soared 8.2 per cent.

On the other side of the globe, Europeans have also caught the battery-powered buzz.

One in every 8 bikes sold in the Netherlands is electric, the French and Italian governments are offering e-bike incentives and UK e-bike sales hit a record high in 2009.

Yet, the Australian industry remains small and specialised. Several big brands are locked out of the market due to government regulations limiting motors to 200 watts. “Right now we can’t approach anybody to sell our bikes; we can’t set up any distribution structure because essentially they’re illegal,” says Paul Reeves, group manager of the environmental division at Sanyo, which manufactures the Eneloop electric bicycle. The same regulation has kept Giant from selling e-bikes in Australia.

Smaller local vendors echo the sentiments of the bicycle behemoths. Rodney Dilkes sold e-bike conversion kits for several years through his Internet business, trading under the name EV Power. He says the 200-watts rule caused him “constant consternation” because it meant his products were illegal for on-road use. He believes this restriction has “stifled the electric bicycle market in Australia”.

Australian e-bike regulation is among the strictest in the developed world. The EU, USA and Canada have power limits ranging from 250 to 750 watts, making many overseas models illegal on Australian roads.

“The market in Australia is very much constrained by the types of vehicles that can be brought in,” says Geoffrey Rose, director of the Institute of Transport Studies at Monash University.

Fixing the System

To address some of these issues, the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) has suggested changes to the classification of electric bicycles – changes that, if they go ahead, will probably be adopted by all states and territories. The RTA recommends a limit of 250 watts, the same as in the EU and Japan. According to a 2009 discussion paper, this would open up Australia to e-bikes designed and manufactured for bigger markets overseas.

But the proposed regulation doesn’t go far enough for “Two hundred and fifty watts is still the bottom end of output,” says Reeves. “The average seems to actually be 350 around the world.” Rose thinks there shouldn’t be any wattage limit. “It’s the speed that’s the thing we’ve got to manage.” The RTA proposes a speed limit of 25 km/h.

Other e-bike manufacturers are content to work within the current limit. “Our system does it all with the 200 watts,” says Allan Dow, whose eLation bike has a geared set-up.

Pedal Problems

Most e-bikes have a handlebar throttle, like on a motorcycle. And then there are ‘pedal-assist’ bikes, where the motor kicks in only once the rider starts pedalling. An RTA discussion paper suggested that the need to pedal to gain motor assistance should be made compulsory. E-bikes with throttles would still be permitted, but the motor would cut out if the rider stopped pedalling – what’s known as a pedal-permit system.

“That’s going to open up a whole new can of worms,” says Dow. Several industry stakeholders say the RTA’s suggestion could prove dangerous. “The main problem with this system [pedal-permit] is that the rider cannot turn off power easily and rapidly, and the bike can be propelled forward under electric power when near people or in traffic,” explains Matthew Timmins, owner of Solar Bike and a researcher in bio-energy at the University of Western Australia.

Making a pedal assist compulsory could also alienate a crucial segment of the market – disabled or elderly riders who don’t have the strength to pedal. At the same time, it could make many e-bikes currently on the road illegal
overnight. In some cases, owners would have to pay between $50 and $80 to make their e-bike compliant. Others would have to buy a new e-bike altogether.

Responding to these claims, a spokesperson for the RTA said “the changes will not affect throttle-powered vehicles” but declined to provide a copy of the RTA’s proposal. The most recent publicly available document from the RTA states that compulsory pedal-assist would mean many existing e-bikes “could not continue to be sold”. This has clear implications for the industry.

Beyond the squabbles about watts, speeds and activation systems looms a larger question: is Australia ready for e-bikes? Unlike the populations of Europe and China, we don’t have a strong cycling culture, and the infrastructure of our cities is heavily geared towards car travel.

Geoffrey Rose of Monash University thinks e-bikes can only take off when the urban environment supports regular bicycle use. “If a city or a town doesn’t provide an adequate level of bicycle infrastructure to enable people to safely travel on a conventional bike, then a change in the regulations isn’t going to see the e-bike come in as a solution to all the problems.”

In Australia, at least, it seems the century-old e-bike might have to wait a while longer to take its place on the road.